Parliamentary and health officials are wargaming an ACT COVID-19 outbreak affecting Federal Parliament, and are working to prevent the imminent sitting week period from becoming a national super-spreader event.
With more than half the country in lockdown due to the virulent Delta strain of the coronavirus, discussions are under way between Parliament's presiding officers, ACT Health officials and party leaders about the August and September sitting period, starting on Tuesday August 3, and how to make it work.
"The Delta strain is a new challenge," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday. "And the whole world is wrestling with it. Countries that thought that they could open up within days are shutting down.
"Now, there are many elements to what builds our resilience, but the difficulty right now is getting the right set of policy tools about how you can deal with outbreaks that occur in Delta."
Approximately 2000 people work in Parliament House on a non-sitting day, and approximately 5000 people on a sitting day. Those extra 3000 or so come to Canberra from across the country. At the end of the sitting period, they head back into their communities.
The ACT has, so far, managed a long run of avoiding locally acquired cases, but it is understood officials are most concerned about a possible COVID-19 outbreak not related to Parliament, which may get into the building and then be spread nationally as parliamentarians and staff later return home.
The word is that, despite fears of postponement, Parliament is planned to go ahead under a COVID-19 cloud "until someone says it is not".
There have been many weeks of discussions, but it is still likely to be several days from any decisions being made on the return of Parliament, such as whether the building will be open to the public. Several major events have already been cancelled ahead of Parliament resuming.
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Any possible postponement to Parliament would ultimately be a government decision for the House of Representatives, and it would need to be a joint decision of the major parties for the Senate. It's understood Labor does not want Parliament postponed.
Many MPs, particularly those from Sydney, are planning to attend Parliament remotely via video link. All MPs in Covid hotspots who wish to attend Parliament in person should be in ACT quarantine by now.
MPs and staff currently in ACT quarantine are not regarded as a great risk, as they are expected to follow strict protocols. MPs who The Canberra Times have spoken to have had random police checks and are completing daily questionnaires about possible symptoms and their mental health status.
The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader will be in Canberra for Parliament's resumption. It is expected that most ministers and shadow ministers will also attend. Sydney-based Labor MPs Tony Burke, Anne Stanley, Chris Hayes, Mike Freelander and Susan Templeman are in ACT quarantine.
Under quorum rules, the presence of at least one-fifth of the whole number of the members of the House is required to constitute a meeting, while in the Senate at least 19 senators are needed.
It is understood pairing arrangements are being sorted out by the party whips, while officials and party leaders are trying to give MPs and staff confidence they can safely go home.
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